Rydell Bligen, left, and Anthony McKnight of Charleston, stand under a new highway sign on Edisto Island that pays tribute to Edisto native James Jamerson | Picture provided

The intersection at S.C. Highway 174 and Steamboat Landing Road on Edisto Island has a new name, a tribute to James Jamerson whose one-finger style of playing the bass guitar powered the soulful low end for a string of Motown hits.

Jamerson, an Edisto native, played with the Funk Brothers, an ensemble of studio musicians whose uncredited rhythms made household names out of the Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, the Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, the Supremes and Smokey Robinson.

The S.C. General Assembly in May approved a resolution that authorized the intersection’s designation on Edisto, a sea island south of Charleston. The S.C. Department of Transportation installed a sign naming the crossroads the James Lee Jamerson Memorial Highway.

A long road to recognition

For decades, Jamerson’s first cousin, Anthony McKnight of Charleston, has pushed to bring attention to Jamerson’s contributions to music. McKnight unveiled the sign during a recent ceremony that included a sold-out musical tribute at the Edisto Island Civic Center.

For two decades, McKnight said, he has tried to get Jamerson inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Fame. He is frustrated that Jamerson has not received the recognition given in 2020 to Darius Rucker, he said.

“Jamerson was making music before Darius Rucker was born,” said McKnight, who stages the annual James Jamerson Bass Symposium in Charleston. 

McKnight’s relentless efforts are appearing to pay off. In April, Jamerson will be inducted into the South Carolina Entertainers & Musicians Hall of Fame in Greenville, McKnight told the Charleston City Paper.

But McKnight’s work is not over. He’s now planning a historic marker along Morrison Drive near Huger Street by today’s Cooper River Courts. McKnight said Jamerson and his brother, Richard Brown, lived with his family in the projects before they moved to Detroit to live with their mother, Elizabeth Bacon.

Jamerson was a young talent

McKnight was an infant when a 16-year-old Jamerson moved to the Midwest. In high school, he excelled on the upright bass, which led to work at recording studios. In 1959, Jamerson joined Berry Gordy’s Hitsville U.S.A. studio, headquarters for the Motown sound.

By the time McKnight was a 14-year-old student at Burke High School, he’d spend summers in Detroit following Jamerson into Motown studio sessions with the Supremes, Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations and others.  

The Edisto Island community gathered recently for the unveiling of a sign designating the S.C. Hwy 174 and Steamboat Landing Road intersection as the James Lee Jamerson Memorial Highway. Jamerson, an Edisto native, was a bass player with the Funk Brothers band, the studio musicians who played during Motown’s recording sessions. | Picture provided

“When I was in the studio, they were making music, but I didn’t think anything of it,” he said. “It wasn’t until I came back home … and the winter months set in and then a song would come on the radio. I’d say, ‘Wait a minute I remember that song. That’s the song they were doing that day when I was in the studio.”

McKnight said he knew Jamerson had a special talent. “From the first time I heard him play [the Temptations’] ‘My Girl,’ I said, ‘Whoa!’” McKnight said. “That was the first time a song ever started with the bass,” said McKnight, former lead vocalist with the Black Velvets, a local soul and R&B group that performed from 1973 until 2005.

Edisto Island historian and author Greg Estevez said he first heard of Jamerson three years ago through McKnight’s efforts to promote his cousin. That news gave him a sense of pride, he said. 

“He has been passionate about making sure that [Jamerson] gets the credit he deserves. I am from Edisto so anything about Edisto we definitely want to celebrate,” said Estevez, who was a coordinator of the Jamerson tribute. 

Estevez, a member of the Edisto Island Museum, said the museum earlier this year produced a brief video tribute to Jamerson that was posted on YouTube. 

Marvin Gaye wanted Jamerson

James Island native Kevin Hamilton, the bass player for the two-time Grammy Award-winning Gullah ensemble Ranky Tanky, said Jamerson’s musical vernacular likely influenced him even before he knew it as he heard the recordings that his parents played during house parties. 

Jamerson was a working studio musician who possessed a genius released “on the spot” as he laid down a classic bass line during late-night studio sessions, Hamilton said. 

“So much of what I try to do is [play] a line that has character and stands alone,” Hamilton said. “Everything that Jamerson did stood alone. Jamerson had a beautiful way of marrying the harmony, melody and rhythm.”

Jamerson reluctantly switched to electronic bass in the early 1960s to play soul music because it helped to pay the bills. A decade later, Jamerson emerged as a highly sought-after bassist for Motown recordings.

“When Marvin Gaye was working on the What’s Going On album, Jamerson was out playing jazz … [but] Marvin said, ‘I need Jamerson to play this part. I gotta have Jamerson,’” McKnight said. Eventually, a search party found Jamerson that night playing at a Detroit jazz club. “He was drunk as heck,” McKnight said. “He was so drunk he couldn’t sit on a stool [in the Motown studio] so he laid on the floor and played What’s Going On.” 

Jamerson hooked Motown with his bass

Jamerson had an unorthodox one-finger style of playing the bass, McKnight said. “He called that one finger the hook,” he added. Between 1962 and 1968, Jamerson is reported to have played on about 95% of the Motown recordings.

He died at the age of 47 in 1983. McKnight became frustrated that Jamerson had a simple marker in Detroit’s Woodland Cemetery, the resting place for cultural and music greats such as Rosa Parks, Aretha Franklin, the Temptations’ David Ruffin and the Four Tops’ Levi Stubbs.

In 2021, McKnight led an effort to place at Jamerson’s grave a polished black marble headstone with his photo and adorned with a bronze sculpture of Jamerson’s cherished Fender Precision bass.

“All I am trying to do is keep my cousin’s legacy alive,” he said.

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